Yangtze shipping left high and dry
The greatest threat to Beijing’s Go West initiative is emerging as a lack of water in the parched inland provinces.
The Year of the Dragon begins now, represented in the Chinese zodiac by the Water Dragon. There is some irony in that, because the worst drought in 50 years has forced Chinese maritime authorities to close the Yangtze River above the port of Wuhan, more than 600 miles upriver from Shanghai.
At some places the river has fallen to just 10 feet deep, stranding vessels upstream and cutting access to the largest port in western China, Chongqing. The river is also 160 feet narrower in places than it was last year.
Officials plan to release water from the Three Gorges Dam to try to raise the level but because the entire region is suffering from the drought, that won’t do much. If the dam drops below 510 feet it apparently cannot meet its power generating needs.
The Yangtze is the only really viable transport option for export marine containers leaving the heavily industrialized region for the international markets. A rail link with Shenzhen is in place, but with priority given to passengers and coal, getting boxcar space is not guaranteed, and a link with Europe is efficient but capacity is a problem. It is easier to ship boxes down the river to Shanghai and transship them from ports such as Yangshan.
The depth of the river has become a serious problem in that it only allows access to vessels of 10,000 tonnes or less. As the cargo volume has increased, so has the number of small ships on the waterway, leading to chronic congestion at any choke point, such as locks and narrow gorges.
Now drought can be added to the list of headaches facing vessel operators on the Yangtze. And drought is not a problem that can be dredged away. If there is no water, dredging is just digging a hole.
The Yangtze is the most important waterway in China. Last year Chongqing became a “100 million” port, handling 100 million tonnes of cargo. No numbers of boxes are out yet, but in the second half of the year after offering generous financial incentives in July to shipping lines calling at the river port, container throughput increased by 30 percent.
The west of China is becoming the country’s fourth economic pillar alongside the Pear River and Yangtze deltas, and the Bohai Rim. Chongqing has received a massive increase in investment from Hong Kong and FDI is growing exponentially.
But the giant Chongqing industrial centre needs the Yangtze River to survive. It is an economic lifeline. Seed the clouds to make it rain or melt the Tibetan glaciers, or something, because the last thing Beijing wants is resistance to start building against its Go West initiative, just as it starts gaining momentum.